Vaudevillians had an article of faith: It’s the Setup, not the Punch Line. Which was a way of remembering that the punch line is just a match, a spark; meaningless without tinder and kindling laid out carefully underneath, ready to catch and burn.
Smitty had her knee ‘scoped the other day, so she’s been recuperating and I’ve been feeding the ice machine to help the swelling go down. Naturally, this recuperation has entailed our sitting around on the couch, eating well and watching lots of movies.
Yesterday, we watched one of my favorites: the six-hour BBC production of ‘Smiley’s People,’ based on the John Le Carre novel and starring Alec Guinness, Eileen Atkins, Bernard Hepton, Michel Lonsdale, Patrick Stewart and Anthony Bate.
We watched the six-hour ‘Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy’ a few weeks ago, so this was the sequel and I learned a lot watching both of these films with her.
I love the Smiley stories because they’re chess games of character, deep portraits of individuals under pressure. Le Carre is one of my favorite writers; I think he’s the only writer whose entire body of work I’ve read (though I’ll admit to not finishing ‘The Naive and Sentimental Lover’ – there’s a reason he let it go out of print). Le Carre is labeled a thriller writer but he’s simply a great writer whose subject – whose prism for getting at the subject of human beings – is the world of spies.
Le Carre often builds his stories from the outside in. He’ll begin with several seemingly unrelated details and characters and keep building them while you try to figure out the connection. Lots of writers do this but often on a mindless, insecure level, just to keep the ‘action’ moving and keep the reader from any possibility of boredom. In Le Carre, this kind of storytelling fits the subject – the secret world is all about creating illusions and seeing through them. I’ve repeatedly been 150 pages into one of his books, screaming ‘Okay, I’m sold – now tell me what the hell’s going on!’
Nonetheless, when I go back to the BBC shows, I tend to be impatient and skip through the early episodes to get to the ‘action’, which is concentrated in the last two hours. This tendency gets worse when I’m working on other things and rushing through everything else because I have to write, run errands, visit friends I’ve neglected or whatever.
This time, with Smitty’s knee attached to an ice machine and neither of us going anywhere for a while, I watched deeply again. She got really involved in the story, asking questions and catching on to plot and character way faster than I had. So I got to see this thing I love all over again with new eyes. I really paid attention all the way through, the way you have to when you read.
I rediscovered going slow, the joy of getting there instead of being there. The pleasure of small detail, of bits of character building one on top of another, of a great turn of phrase or a beautiful image enriching the journey.
I’m going to remember this as I work my way through the ‘Mindbenders’ sequel. Stories aren’t real life – they’re dramatic (life generally isn’t and, when it is, we’re all too often not happy about it) – but in stories, like life, the slow accumulation of detail lends a discovery its weight and breadth, makes it a real cathartic understanding. All too many stories now are one climax after the other with no buildup, with no foreplay.
It’s the Setup, Not the Punch Line.